On leading a refreshingly weird age of K-Pop
On leading a refreshingly weird age of K-Pop
Creative Director: Yohan Yoon @yohanyoon_
Photographer: June Kim @junebugkim
Gaffer: William Wu @wirriamwu
Photo Assistant: Kana Motojima @kanamotojima
Photo Assistant: Seoju Park @seojuparks
2nd AD: Noah Namgoong @won_gak
Wardrobe Stylist: Suthee Ritthaworn @sutheeritt
Hair Artist: Tomoaki Sato @tomoaki_sato
Makeup Artist: Shoko Sawatari @shokomakeup
Makeup Artist Assistant: Shiori Sato @shiorisatomua
Cinematographer: Brandon Yoon @brndnyn
Video Editor: David Rho @davidrhorho
Producer: Monique Kamargo @mkamargo_
Production Coordinator: Toogii Khurmast @toogiik
Production Assistant: Edmond Hong @edmondohongo
Production Assistant: Simon Hyun @y2spirit
Words: Agnes Bae @aggiebeeee
Location: Boerum Studio @boerumstudios
Talents: Omega Sapien @omegasapien, Sogumm @sogumm, Mudd the Student @muddthestudent, BJ Wnjn @bjwnjn, San Yawn @kangghettodaewang, Chanhee Hong @seoulthesosloist
They say in New York opportunities arise when you least expect them—all it takes is being at the right place at the right time. I somehow found myself in one of these “New York Moments” at a dinner sitting around a table of loose acquaintances—friends of friends, people I followed online but had never actually met in real life. After dinner, my friend Yohan asked me if I had heard of Balming Tiger, an alternative/indie K-Pop music collective from Seoul who had been steadily gaining more notoriety here in the US and in Asia. At the time, they were about to embark on a short but sweet North American tour, making stops at SXSW in Austin, the Echoplex in LA, and Baby’s All Right in New York.
For starters, the term “alternative/indie K-Pop music collective” piqued my curiosity in its paradox. Since K-Pop’s beginnings marked by hip hop group Seo Taeji and Boys’ debut in mainstream music in 1992, it has experienced many waves throughout my own lifetime. I have lucid snapshots of daydreaming about elementary crushes in the back of my parents’ car on the way to church in Queens, soundtracked by the ballads of Fly to the Sky and KCM. The mainstream then was still blued by slow ballads and pop-folk songs of the 80s, defined by South Korea’s military dictatorship and media censorship called “trot”. In the early 2000s, 2NE1 popped up onto a girl group scene, challenging the porcelain, thin, copy and paste beauty standards with their cyberpunk outfits, harajuku hair, unconventionally unplastic faces, and alpha self-assured confidence. As far as I can tell, K-Pop has always existed alongside American pop music, albeit lingering in the background like an eager student waiting out in the hallway, but never actually being called upon to come inside and present their project.
Later in life, as I grappled with questions about my own adulthood during high school, the industry experienced a reckoning of its own, confronted with the very real consequences of its systemic inequity and oppressive practices. Grim and tragic consequences of K-Pop’s exploitative capitalism, shoved under the floorboards of its immaculately optimistic aestheticism in a Parasite-esque unveiling, bubbled to the surface. This led to a serious need to reimagine and question not only industry standards but the society surrounding it, which had allowed things to deteriorate so severely..
Balming Tiger, in an interview with NME magazine, describes K-Pop today as “whatever the f-ck you want it to be.” They are both a supergroup and their own label, with eleven members covering roles from A&R to artist/producer. Balming Tiger’s idiosyncrasies are borne from unshackled creativity and punkish rejection of “the powers that be” that may try to inhibit that.
On set, I first meet founding member, producer, and creative director San Yawn. Rapper and fellow bandmate Omega Sapien compares him to a “Pokemon master” for how he seems to collect members with individual colors and strengths throughout the years to join their DIY family. San Yawn started Balming Tiger in 2018 with Abyss, who he knew as a fellow DJ at an independent underground radio station called Seoul Community Collective radio. He greets me with a warm smile, and the first thing I notice about him is his unevenly shaved head. There is a longer patch of buzzed hair straight down the middle of his head, and it is entirely unserious and all the more comforting to my buzzing nerves. Mudd the Student, BJ Wnjn, Chanhee Hong, and Sogumm follow him into the studio. Omega Sapien is the last to arrive, standing out immediately with his lime green hair. He strikes me as one of those people whose confidence enters a space before he does. He’s accompanied by a small posse of New Jersey Day 1s—Alan, Kai, and Chris. Notable absences are Unsinkable (producer, DJ), Lee Suho (producer, video director), Henson Hwang (editor, writer), and Jan ‘Qui (music video director, producer).
In between shots, San Yawn and I discuss the current state of music and art in Seoul. He confirms my observations via social media and the internet that underground scenes in music, illustration, sculpture, tattooing, etc. are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance uninhibited by rules and trends. People are just doing them. He looks over at Chanhee who is currently painting at Kookmin University. Outside of Balming Tiger, Chanhee has been involved with the street scene in photography and fashion and continues to pursue those projects alongside Balming Tiger. San Yawn confirms their debut album as a collective is, for the most part, complete. As we chat, I am distracted by Mudd the Student, who is fully reclined on the couch in the back of the studio, his long legs hanging off one end and his long curly bangs completely eclipsing his eyes. He looks so relaxed, he could be at home in his living room.
Suddenly, Sogumm jumps into the conversation, excitedly exclaiming that I remind her of her best friend back home, Ga-Soo, who I mistake for the Korean word meaning “singer.” She shows me her friend’s Instagram page and I quickly realize her friend’s name is Ga Soo Hyun and that we serendipitously share the same first name. Sogumm started self-releasing music on soundcloud around 2017 and since joining Balming Tiger has released two studio albums, Precious with AOMG and Sobrightttt produced by fellow member Bj Wnjn. She’s gained a cult following for her unique style of slur-singing and introspective, simple, stream of consciousness lyrics floating atop versatile ambient/experimental pop and R&B/hip hop production. I’m struck by the feeling that these are not individuals who are aware of—or perhaps not caught up in—the weight of their surging popularity. They feel more like Korean versions of friends that I have here in New York. For a moment, I forget that they are Balming Tiger.
In matching blue Tang suits, the six members begin their second sold out show at Baby’s All Right with “Kolo Kolo” produced by Unsinkable. Backed by minimal, tribal sounding drums, Omega Sapien’s opening verse takes over the venue, the crowd exploding in a mosh. About eighty five percent of the lyrics for “Kolo Kolo” is “Hakuna matata matatata”, which famously means “no worries” or “no troubles”. Bj wnjn effortlessly vocalizes over the cinematic swelling interlude before the beat breaks in again.
Following “Kolo Kolo”, Balming Tiger delivers silly synchronized choreography performing “Just Fun!” and “Loop”. Although it isn’t perfect, I get the feeling their audience couldn’t care less. On “Just Fun!” Sogumm’s rounded syllables crooning “Double trouble, this music makes me dance” adds a soft symmetry to wnjn’s jazzy flairs later cut by Omega Sapien’s straightforward, blunt flow. While their individual sounds are distinct, their chemistry feels additive and complementary, as opposed to six strong voices taking turns at the mic. In the middle of the set, “Off Road Jam” plays from Chanhee’s booth, Mudd the Student’s noisy, scribbly rock rap blasting the room with the kind of DIY energy you might find at a hardcore show. Mudd made his own debut in 2019, competing in the Vans “Musicians Wanted” contest and starring in “Show Me the Money”, a hip hop competition show, in 2021. His sound is a wonderfully chaotic mixture of influence from bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, blended with glitchcore and hyperpop sensibilities. Omega Sapien ad-libs next to Mudd—he is the comedic relief and MC of the evening. He is fluent in English due to time spent abroad in America, China, and Japan throughout his life. Omega Sapien’s hip hop is maximalist and loud with one clear goal being a good time. He’s worked with fellow experimental hip hop-adjacent artists like Sega Bodega and Abdu Ali. Formidable in stage presence and energy, it is hard to deny he feels like the main character at times when he isn’t poking fun at his fellow bandmates.
“Sexy Nukim”, which features RM of BTS, and “Armadillo” are arguably Balming Tiger’s most popular songs and are equally met with that overwhelming surge of excitement and commotion when the artist finally performs crowd favorites. “Trust Yourself” is the closer, a song that is appropriately about trusting in yourself and the process of life. Omega Sapien raps, “When you feel like the world is collidin’, walls up, pretendin’ to love the party, dyin’ inside all the emotions are hidin’, how to live it’s confusing I know it.”
Balming Tiger is weird. They are weird, yet they represent modern K-Pop in its modern amorphousness and open bounds, embracing a more sustainable positivity that isn’t chained to archaic structures stifling creativity and free thought, but rather emboldening it and allowing it to just be. Instead of waiting outside the classroom to be called in, Balming Tiger feels like what would happen if those students banded together to start a school of their own. Like the tiger balm that they are named after, they are a delightfully unforgettable analgesic to tired homogeneity. It truly can be whatever the f-ck you want it to be.